Response to ‘Syria: the revolution that never was’

Journalist Asa Winstanley has written an article titled “Syria: the revolution that never was,” for Middle East Monitor. The following is a critique to a few of the claims Winstanley makes in the article. I decided to respond to this article in particular because I believe it contains many erroneous assertions that are frequently used to disparage the Syrian uprising, and thus this is a response and critique of those assertions and the substance of the article in general.

“To say Syria is now a disaster is a massive understatement. This is a sectarian civil war which could continue for a decade if the regime’s enemies, led by the brutal Saudi tyranny, continue to wage their proxy war on the country.

What is being implied in this statement is that if the people engaging in armed struggle against the regime were to put down their weapons, the “sectarian civil war” would cease. I’m not sure how Winstanley concludes this, but it seems to be based on an optimistic view of the regime and to place the responsibility of the war almost totally on the “regime’s enemies.” I firmly believe that intervention by reactionary forces on the side of the opposition (Saudi Arabia, Qatar) has done great harm to Syria and the Syrian uprising in general, but nevertheless, to state that the onus is entirely on them to end this war is to imply that the regime is somewhat innocent, which I believe is ludicrous.

“But what a difference in Syria. Yes, the regime is dictatorial and ruthless. But from the beginning of the uprising, which initially only demanded “reform,” Syria was split. Along with large anti-Assad demonstrations, there were equally huge pro-Assad demonstrations. When demonstrations supporting a brutal tyrant are attended on such a massive scale, you shouldn’t fool yourself with the farcical BBC theory that tens of thousands of people were “forced” onto the streets.”

I want to dwell on this point because I believe it is a particularly insidious claim that is oft-repeated. Let’s forget for a second that the claim that the pro-Assad protests were “equally huge” is completely unsubstantiated. First of all, those pro-Assad protests were completely centered in Damascus and took place a few times. How can you compare protests in the political center of the regime to widespread protests occurring all over Syria, from Deraa in the south to Idlib in the North, over the course of several months? The protest movement in Syria at the beginning of the uprising was scattered throughout Syria, not only from city to city, but even within cities they were scattered from neighborhood to neighborhood. How is the political capital from a few pro-Assad protests in Damascus at all comparable to people taking to the streets all over Syria everyday for weeks, even after being shot at? How are we even to compare numbers given that the Syrian anti-regime protests were scattered (and even though they were scattered they still had impressive numbers even after a year of protests and subsequent repression).

Second of all, Winstanley seems to accord some equivalence between these two, as if they are not only morally but practically equivalent. Let us assume for a moment that his claim that no one was forced into the streets for pro-Assad rallies is true. That doesn’t change the fact that these protests were regime-sanctioned protests. These were not spontaneous eruptions of popular support for the regime. These were pro-regime rallies, organized by the regime, and under the protection of the regime. Do these really deserve to be compared to the thousands who took to the streets in Homs in November 2011 at the Clock Sit-In to protest for the martyrs that were killed by regime bullets in previous protests? (Regime forces also opened fire on that protest in what is now known as the Homs Clock Massacre). Anti-regime protests were under constant threat of regime repression, and yet they still managed to have, according to Winstanley, “equally huge demonstrations.” On a practical level, the anti-regime protesters braved bullets, imprisonment and a high likelihood of death, but still had huge numbers and were ubiquitous. The regime protests did not. They are in no way equivalent.

By now, there are no demonstrations of significance on either side…

In his article, Asa frequently mocks people for believing mainstream media narratives on Syria, yet it seems that this claim itself is based on the mainstream media narrative that is hyper-focused on the armed groups. Many areas in Syria still have anti-regime demonstrations, and many also have anti-ISIS demonstrations. Here is one in Yarmouk Camp in October, here is one from Aleppo in October, here is one that took place today in Idlib, and here is one in Raqqa city against ISIS in September. I’m not sure if Winstanley is unaware that they exist, or if he is aware of their existence but is stating that they are insignificant (to which I’d respond: why?).

And herein lies the second key to the mystery of Assad’s continued support base (polarised as it is): the alternative is considered by many normal people in Syria and in the region as a whole, to be far worse.

Here Winstanley assumes that Assad has a continued support base due to the fact that jihadis dominate the armed opposition. First of all, can we please dispel any illusions that the Assad regime is still in power because it still has a support base? This is a regime that is totally insulated from any popular support it still has. Any areas it still controls it does by militarization and force, that is, setting up several checkpoints and controlling movement of people. Thus, it owes its continued survival to regime cohesion, intervention by its allies, and military might, not some ‘mandate’ from its support base. Furthermore, if you follow the moves Assad took in the initial months of the uprising, you will see that Assad indeed made calculated moves in order to posit himself as a lesser evil. For example, in late 2011, Assad released 1400 political prisoners from prison in what was seen as a concession to the revolutionary movement. These 1400 prisoners turned out to be mostly Salafist activists, many of whom had fought in Iraq previously. The Islamist military leadership is filled with people who were released from prison in that amnesty. Are they Assadist agents? I don’t believe so. But was releasing them a calculated move by Assad? Definitely. Those prisoners he released have come to dominate the armed opposition, most notably Zahran Alloush, who is now the leader of the newly-formed Army of Islam. Which brings up another point:

As this sectarian hatred shows, they were never moderate anyway. Which explains why so many “FSA” units have now joined groups pledging allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawarhari (formerly Osama bin Laden’s number two).

This actually isn’t the case. In fact many of the Islamist units have been distancing themselves from ISIS. The Army of Islam was formed as a counter-weight to ISIS, with many of the biggest Islamist factions joining it. While accurate numbers are hard to obtain, word on the (Syrian) street is that most Syrians have left ISIS and ISIS is now mostly composed of foreigners. In fact today, an even bigger anti-ISIS Islamist coalition was formed, the Islamic Front. I am in no way implying that these are the revolutionary forces in Syria or the progressive sectors of the armed struggle. Yet the nuances are important: these are Islamist reactionary forces, but they are not allied with al-Qaida or al-Zawahiri, and they are against ISIS. Simply painting al-Qaida and ISIS on one side and the Assad regime on the other is inaccurate.

Winstanley prefaces a list of crimes committed by the Islamist opposition armed groups with:

Armed takfiri fanatics, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, now control large parts of the Syrian countryside, even as the regime’s forces are making steady gains. The only “revolution” with any current prospect of succeeding is an al-Qaida revolution. And of course that is no revolution at all.

Is Syria a mess today? Certainly. The most reactionary armed groups seem to have the most resources and the most weapons (thanks to Gulf donors). Many Syrians in the “liberated” areas feel trapped between regime airstrikes and scuds, and jihadi rule. Yet when you view the Syrian conflict through this dichotomous prism of jihadis vs Assad, of course you are going to conclude that there is “no longer a revolution,” although Winstanley goes further by claiming there “never was a revolution.” I agree with Winstanley that none of the revolutions have been successful yet, but I disagree that this means that there is no longer a revolutionary process or revolutionary forces. Revolutions are a long-term process, and there is a long-term revolutionary process in Syria. They consist of mostly unarmed activists, but many armed groups as well, and they are still working all over Syria today (I have spoken about the grassroots revolutionary movements in Syria previously here, and you can read more about them here on Tahrir-ICN and here on the Syria Freedom Forever blog).

The real revolutionaries of Syria, to be frank, probably will not emerge victorious out of this latest conflict as they are pushed to the sidelines and left without resources. Yet they exist, and their existence deserves to be acknowledged. The revolutions in the Arab world have not been fully successful yet, but it is not our place on the outside to despair and write obituaries for the revolutions, but to support a long-term revolutionary struggle. And the first step to supporting that is to acknowledge and identify it, not to write it off and claim that ‘there is no revolution in Syria, there is only Assad and ISIS,’ just because the most powerful forces in Syria today are counter-revolutionary forces.

I agree that the short-term political future of Syria seems bleak. I also can agree that perhaps Syria would really benefit from a ceasefire, giving the Syrian people a chance to breathe and also perhaps the Syrian revolutionaries a chance to regroup and flourish. Yet, I don’t understand why this view needs to be paired with the “there never was a revolution” claim. I believe in a Syrian revolutionary process, and I believe that the short-term political future of Syria won’t necessarily fulfill that process, but I also have long-term optimism for Syria as I know that so many Syrians have been radicalized by that revolutionary process, and those Syrians and that process won’t go away once the dust settles and the war is over.

3 comments
  1. When people who’ve never supported the Syrian uprising from day 1 & two years in come & say they’ve supported it “at first”, their “pessimism” doesn’t emanate simply from ignorance but a deeply rooted bias

  2. Darth, thank you for this excellent piece. I have one question. In talking of the new Islamic Front, you rightly show that it has nothing to do with Al-Qaida. You also rightly distinguish the views of progressives and leftists from the views of the leaderships of the component groups of the Islamic Front. However, in distinguishing them from Al-Qaida, you say “these are Islamist reactionary forces.” I wonder if that is the most accurate way to describe such large formations, mostly clearly organic expressions of an important part of the Syrian uprising; an important part of the Syrian people. While the definition may arguably be correct for what is clearly a national-jihadist group like Ahrar al-Sham, it seems far too narrow for formations in this new front coming from the old SILF, in particular Liwa al-Tawhid and the new Islamic Army formed aroud Liwa al-Islam, large loose organisations clearly based in the genuine struggle of the peasantry and working classes of the vast urban periphery around Aleppo and Damascus. Doesn’t their non-jihadist “Islam” to some extent represent the religious nature of these layers excluded by class from the Baath’s bourgeois-“secular” project, especially in its neo-liberal phase? Obviously that doesn’t mean Syrian leftists are Ok with their politics, but given the wide-ranging nature of the Syrian revolution, it is only natural that forces whcih are in some sense “Islamist” will be a part of it; the worst that can happen is if their (Sunni) “Islamism” leads them into sectarian attacks on non-Sunni, which, from what I can tell, has largely been the work precisely of the two Al-Qaida aligned outfits (possibly Ahrar al-Sham, though I’m not certain), rather than of these groups which, whatever their faults, have fought side by side with the secular FSA and focused their fire on the regime. It would seem that if they were to be all labelled “Islamic reactionary” forces, a reasonable question would be what would make them fundamentally any better than Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS? Sorry for my long question; given the weight of these forces in the Syrian revolt the nature of these groups seems important.

    • Not George Sabra said:

      “Reactionary” in relation to what is the key question here. To anarchism, communism, and socialism, yes, undoubtedly but to democracy and/or fascism?

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